Technical Gaps Narrowed as Iran Nuclear Talks Enter Final Stages

Envoys negotiating an accord over Iran’s nuclear program say they have narrowed their technical disputes, though maybe not enough to forge a pact on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland this week.

Diplomats and scientists have made unmistakable progress toward an accord, U.S. and Iranian officials said on Tuesday in Lausanne as meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif continued for a third day. Negotiators have given themselves until March 31 to agree on a framework agreement.

“As a whole I am optimistic,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, adding that the sides have reduced technical obstacles to a single issue in the last 24 hours, without saying what it was.

Diplomats have been wrangling over the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program as well as the pace at which economic sanctions would be lifted. Since agreeing on an interim accord in November 2013 that capped the Islamic Republic’s most sensitive nuclear work in exchange for limited relief from sanctions, diplomats have had to extend their negotiations twice.

“Still a long way to go but we’re going to get there,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said late Monday in Brussels following a meeting with Zarif. Foreign ministers from German and France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius, as well as the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, also attended.

Support for Talks

This week’s round of talks is the first since a March 9 open letter signed by 47 Republican Senators warned Iranian leaders that a deal may not outlast Barack Obama’s presidency. Iran raised concerns over the letter at the talks, according to one U.S. official who declined to detail what was said. Kerry called the letter “unconstitutional” and ill-advised.

More than two-thirds of Americans support nuclear negotiations with Iran, according to a CNN poll of 1,009 people published on Tuesday.

Technical progress between the sides has occurred as Salehi and U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz intensified their participation in the talks. The physicists, who both researched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, have met about a dozen times in the last three rounds of talks, according to a U.S. official.

Nuclear experts inside the U.S. government and its external advisers say a six-month buffer would be sufficient for the U.S. and its allies to stop Iran if it broke out of safeguards or secretly attempted to make a nuclear weapon, one U.S. official told reporters on Monday.

‘Break Out’

Even so, the Obama administration is pushing for restrictions that would ensure Iran would need at least one year to “break out” in an effort to make a weapon, the official said. Iran says its program is intended for peaceful purposes only.

The remarks by Kerry and U.S. negotiators appeared aimed both at reassuring critics in Washington and Israel who accuse Obama of conceding too much, and at sending a message to Iran’s negotiators that they won’t get better terms by dragging out the talks.

This week’s talks are expected to last until at least March 20. After meetings next week in Washington, Kerry could resume negotiations around March 25.

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